Thursday, November 17, 2016
Wagging the Dog: Vincent Pidone Melds Technology, Mechanics and Art
While in residence at VCCA, Vincent Pidone built an automatic drawing machine that he hopes to program to draw using animation software. Normally, with stop motion animation, you would make drawings and then photograph those drawings individually putting them together to form an animation. It’s a laborious process when you consider that Vincent’s animations are composed of 300-400 individual drawings on file cards to yield about thirty seconds of animation. That’s why Vincent is attempting to get the animation software to do the drawing for him. Ideally, he will end up with a short animated film and a stack of physical drawings that are essentially one-offs.
“I’m basically grabbing the tail and wagging the dog instead of doing it the way it’s typically done,” says Vincent. “What I’m doing is very challenging. If it were easy, someone else would have done it by now. This is why I need a few weeks to work on this stuff.” The VCCA residency funded by the NEA for military veteran artists finally made it possible for him to do something he’s wanted to do for a couple of years, but never had the dedicated time and space to do it. Vincent works full time at R & F Handmade Paints in Kingston, NY. They were very supportive of his taking the time off to come to VCCA.
Vincent came to drawing as an adult. “I’m self taught, but not naive. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at art, so I’ve got a pretty good idea of what works.” This explains his sophisticated minimalist style. He uses silverpoint, which he discovered years ago while working in a factory where silver rod was used for welding. The shop floor was littered with little pieces of the silver rod. One day, he happened to pinch one between the machine he was moving and the melamine top of a table leaving a mark, which he found interesting. He started drawing on the plastic tabletop with the rod fragments and then researched how to translate the medium to paper.
Unlike drawing in graphite or ink, the silverpoint mark is very faint. Pressing down on it doesn’t make it any darker, but repeated trips over the same line, darkens it. That’s where the automatic drawing machine comes in. “The computer is much better at this than I am; it doesn’t care how many times it does it.
“I want to get me out of the process. The mechanical elements are pretty well under control, but I’m banging my head against the level of coding that’s necessary to get the software to work like I want it to. Eventually, it will make a little bit of a drawing, stop, pull the drawing arm out of the way, take a picture, bring the drawing arm back, do more of the drawing and then, repeat.”
The path the silverpoint follows is not programmed; its shape is dictated by the shape of the drawing arm, which holds the silverpoint stylus. However, Vincent tells the motor to turn this way and that at a particular moment. When he moves the motor, the pattern changes just slightly.
Vincent has made the machine intentionally loose. “If I made it tighter and more precise, the drawings would be a lot less interesting. You need that wobble in there. If everything were made like a German machinist had made it, the drawings would be dull. Part of what I’m doing is to get computer results without a computerized look.”
Once Vincent’s gotten all the various parts integrated to work, his plan is to find a drawing he likes, teach the animation software to make that particular shape, altering it ever so slightly between photographs so that he ends up with an animated film. It will start with a white screen and then the drawing will start to appear out of nowhere, becoming progressively darker until it is fully realized.
In a bit of synchronicity, an animation he created recalls a murmuration of starlings darkening the sky. During his residency he experienced the phenomenon. Every evening hundreds of birds flocked outside the Studio Barn around 5:30. There would be 500 to 1,000 of them chirping en mass. Suddenly they would all stop and fly off creating those distinctive swirling patterns in the air. The dotted line in this animation, which suggests individual birds, is achieved by speeding up the machine so that the line becomes choppy. Vincent was determined to record the birds for the soundtrack on the animation. This proved challenging as the birds didn’t flock in the same place or at the same time each evening. Eventually, he was able to assemble three minutes of useable track from nearly four hours he recorded. He also plans to incorporate into the soundtrack, the high-pitched tone the drawing arm makes.
Vincent uses the same animation software as Tim Burton. The software is not expensive—it’s the hardware that is. But this isn’t an issue for Vincent as he knows how to make it himself. Motors have interested him since he was a child and as a member of the military during the Vietnam War, Vincent’s training was in electronics.
“I applied to VCCA’s NEA supported veterans fellowship on the promise of what I might do, not, okay here’s my work and I’m going to make more of it. My feeling is, I can paint at home. Coming to VCCA, I wanted to do something I hadn’t done before. And it is better than nice to have gotten the support to try something new that I might not have been able to deliver on.”